Friday, September 30, 2022

In the clearing

The grass may not always be greener, but with mushrooms it seems to be a different story. It's been a dreadful year for fungi-spotting where I live (too dry), but whenever I go away they seem to be abundant everywhere else. These specimens, from a brief field trip to New Hampshire, were found in an area of scrubby woodland along a rarely-used trail.
Amanita is an interesting and often photogenic genus, with the classic "toadstool" appearance. Some species are regarded as choice edibles (by braver souls than I), others are deadly, and one, the "fly agaric," is a notorious hallucinogen with an alleged role in shamanism and religion. They can be hard to tell apart and I'm not quite sure which Amanita these are, but it was a pleasant surprise to come across them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Stateless person

The narrator of this novel by the elusive writer who called himself B. Traven is one Gerard Gales, an American seaman who oversleeps while in port and loses his identification papers when his ship sails without him. Unable to prove his identity, his nationality, or even his legal existence, he is deported from one European country to another until he finds a freighter whose captain has reason not to be fussy about documents. As it turns out, the aptly-named Yorikke, on which Gales becomes a stoker's assistant, is a dilapidated ship of fools, doomed to be scuttled for its insurance payoff. If the first part of the book is bureaucratic satire, lighter but also sharper than Kafka's in The Trial, the rest is largely taken up with harrowing descriptions of the working conditions of those who tend the boilers. Unlike the Kafka of Amerika, who never crossed the Atlantic at all, Traven clearly knew from first-hand experience what a stoker's existence was really like. But even at its grimmest the book never loses its dark sense of humor. The Yorikke, Gales assures us, is actually thousands of years old. Its apparent timelessness gives the tale yet another dimension.

Who was B. Traven? He usually claimed that, like Gerard Gales, he was an American whose documents had gotten lost. Sometimes he blamed the destruction of his birth record on the fires caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He may have even believed it, and it may even have been true, although few scholars now give the idea much credence. That he was the same person as one Ret Marut, a German actor and radical writer whose paper trail went cold in the 1920s, is no longer seriously questioned, but then who was Ret Marut? We may never know with absolute certainty.

The Death Ship was originally published in German as Das Totenschiff. The earliest English-language edition, issued in 1934 by Chatto & Windus, was translated by Eric Sutton. It was followed almost immediately by an American edition brought out by Alfred A. Knopf, of which my Collier Books edition above is a reprint. No translator is indicated inside the book. Traven, who reportedly didn't like the Sutton version, chose to translate the novel himself for Knopf, expanding it as he did so. His command of English was faulty, however. The German scholar Karl S. Guthke explains what happened:
The manuscript of The Death Ship that arrived in New York in 1933 was couched in an English that would have raised the eyebrows of most readers. As Knopf editor Bernard Smith reported, the text was so Germanic in vocabulary and syntax that it could never have made it in to print. And for good reason: Traven himself had translated the novel (as he was to translate the other novels Knopf would bring out), at the same time giving free rein to his lifelong passion for rewriting, cutting, and inserting new material. Knopf asked Traven to agree to a revision by Smith. Traven asked for sample pages and was favorably impressed. After instructing Knopf that only grammatical, syntactic, and orthographic changes were to be made, he authorized Smith to rework the entire manuscript. "This entailed treating about 25% of the text," Smith recalled. "In any given paragraph there was sure to be at least one impossibly Germanic sentence, and sometimes an entire paragraph had to be reconstructed." Smith stressed that his contribution in no way involved what could be considered literary or creative work on the three novels he revised. He had merely turned Traven's translations into acceptable English. It was clear to Smith from the beginning that English was not the translator's mother tongue; the syntactic thread was German, and even in Smith's reworked version the German original rears its head from time to time.

B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends
The treatment of American place-names in the Traven-Smith version is a bit off. Referring to Wisconsin familiarly as "Sconsin" might just slip by unnoticed, but Chicago is casually referred to as "Chic," Cincinnati as "Cincin," and, least likely of all, Los Angeles as "Los." Other than that and a few eccentric colloquialisms the novel doesn't particularly "read like a translation" at all. Weirdly, it winds up being a work of American literature.

Traven, who would stubbornly maintain the fiction that his novels were originally written in English, allowed his German-language publisher, Büchergilde Gutenberg, to issue a new German "translation" in 1937 based on the Knopf version.